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By Ellen Fussell Policastro
In dangerous operations, especially the offshore oil industry, safety has to remain top priority.

Yet safety incidents continue in spite of highly experienced operators’ efforts. More often than a lack of training, a lack of judgment places these operators in the line of fire. One explanation for operators’ cloudy judgment is they may have reached a saturation point with automation systems and technology overload. That coupled with environmental stress leads to inevitable failure and increases the potential for disaster.

Luis Duran, product marketing manager for ABB control technologies in Houston, and Gregory Hale, founder of, discussed how corporate culture, combined with technology, can help reduce the impact of safety incidents offshore in an ABB-sponsored OE Expert Access, “Empower Offshore Operations with Human-Centered Technology.”

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The numbers clearly reveal where the offshore environment fits into the statistics of incidents throughout the industry. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports an occurrence of 2.3 incidents in 2011 due to injury and illness per 100 oil and gas workers. The U.S. offshore industry experienced an even lower rate of 0.8 incidents per 100 full-time workers. That compares with 3.5 incidents per 100 workers for the entire private sector. While the last few decades have seen a noticeable drop in process safety incidents, the last five years have seen a plateau. So while the numbers haven’t gone up, they haven’t gone down either. And those that do occur are more severe and costly. The industry has experienced an annual loss of $20 billion due to safety incidents, and 80 percent of these incidents were preventable.

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Basic automated actions are reliable in one in several hundred thousand occurrences. And certified safety systems bring up the reliability levels to nearly one failure in one million occurrences. But when it comes to manual actions – the human element – reliability drops dramatically to 1 in 100 occurrences or less, depending on environmental conditions, such as mental stress, during an abnormal event. Root-cause analysis indicates these human errors persist in spite of training and behavior enforcement.

Poor Communication Means Human Failures
Lack of communication is one of the top reasons for human failures offshore. A glaring example of communication failures is that of the 1988 Piper Alpha rig disaster in the North Sea. Alarm handling played a role as well. With so many alarms going off, operations had a hard time deciding which were important and which ones could wait. Setting up these alarms to react in real time will help operators make a decision. But a culture of safety needs to exist first – an environment in which people understand and work toward a common goal to ensure a safe operating system.

Corporate culture is vital to ensuring a strong safety environment. “You can’t just say, ‘Let’s be safe,’ and that’s the end of it,” Hale said. “There needs to be a framework that comes from the top and says, ‘Safety is Job 1.’ Second you have to understand the risk and be clear in your assessment of where that risk lies. Also, organizations with vigorous safety cultures are in a more secure position to avoid accidents and are better prepared when an incident happens.”

Training Imperative
“Training is not necessarily a technology topic, but it is a key issue in the industry today,” Duran said. “We have a group of experts in industry getting ready to retire. So we have to capture their expertise. Technology is constantly changing as well. But we can use technology to assist the workforce. We can help train operators to work more effectively in difficult situations,” he said.

Hale likened safety training to the regimen airline pilots go through on a frequent basis.

“With pilot training, they have a chance to deal with every kind of potential disaster out there,” Hale said. “In the normal world they will probably not encounter these disasters, but if they do, they’re ready to go.”

Technology Can Help
While a strong corporate culture of safety is critical, technology can also come into play to assist operations in ensuring a safe environment. Stressors, such as organizational change and management transition, fatigue from shiftwork and overtime, and ineffective communication can contribute to poor decisions, Duran said. Technology can step in with efforts in improved ergonomics, display design, and training simulators to assist operations, Duran said.

In the process sector offshore, the design of the system as it relates to the operator is an important part of the safety design. It’s important to keep the operator’s attention, as he’s supervising the system and not controlling it, Duran said. “We can improve comfort and provide information that’s easy to understand. Simple moves, such as changing the operator’s physical environment and changing the lighting of the control room, can provide an environment in which the operator can be more alert and able to handle stress during abnormal conditions in the plant,” he said.

Graphic design is another area Duran’s team can improve. “The majority of today’s process automation assemblies rely on HMI,” he said. “Graphic design is a critical element to respond to a system design. In the late 1980s, it was common to see graphics that looked like a piping integration diagram. Inconsistent use of colors and graphic design practices were key contributors to confusion in the control room.” High performance HMI can improve operator situational awareness with consistent use of color, regardless of the information source. Within the same graphic, the operator can visualize the context with a multitude of subsystems.

In a similar situation, “when so many alarms are going off – what we call crying babies – that can lead to an urgent situation,” Duran said. “You soon have a whole bunch of crying babies that need attention all at once. That’s where an effective graphic design for alarm panels can help.”

“With traditional HMI you can get good results. But why settle for good when you can get better results with high performance HMI? You can see an increase with a five-fold hike in abnormal situations before alarms occur. You’ll see a 96 percent rate of handling abnormal situations with high performance HMI,” Hale said.

Using high performance HMI doesn’t have to be complicated. But to keep it simple, it’s essential to adhere to maintenance practices. An asset integrity management system can help deliver proactive maintenance strategies. One proactive strategy is to figure out possible causes for abnormal events. This type of strategy allows for easier communication between maintenance and operators, Hale said. “As we know, greater collaboration allows for stronger communication, which begs the question about integrated safety and control.”

Integrated Safety Systems
With the right design, integrated control and safety systems (ICSS) can provide a consistent technology environment for engineers and operators. “The whole premise of an integrated system is to give the operator access to information and decision-making, regardless of where information is coming from,” Duran said. “When information comes from process displays, especially in cases of abnormal conditions, ICSS can make it easier to exploit an area in the system where the operator needs to take timely action,” Duran said.

The key is to design all this technology around the human, Duran said. “The operators are running the system, but the technology can help with lower engineering and lifecycle costs as well as providing access and event management.” The technology works in tandem with humans because it requires engineers to think through the process. “So the designer has to ensure a process control system does not affect the safety of the procedure. He needs to introduce management of change consistently across the board in the system. This relies on the competence of the people using the system,” he said. And that’s where integrated control and safety systems come in – “to provide technology to help eliminate the consequences of human error.”

The bottom line is safety is not a job for one person, Hale said. Companies that employ best-in-case safety practices achieve 90 percent overall equipment effectiveness. But in order to make these changes in culture, the impetus has to come from executive leadership. And that leadership needs to establish a proactive strategy. Everyone has to understand the strategy and practice it on a daily basis.

“When there’s a small incident or near miss, there should be a root-cause analysis that’s a teaching point. Make sure your hazop is up to date; things change over time. You have to update your layers of protection analysis and your alarm strategy,” he said.

Today’s displays can give the operator enough information so he can take action to prevent problems from escalating. The key is consistency in the working environment, which can add to collaboration, so operators can respond to the unexpected when automation cannot, Hale said.

“We can design everything we know into an automated system,” Hale said. “The issues are how to deal with those things we don’t expect to happen. That’s where the operator is king. His ability to respond to those conditions will drive the difference between the incident and the recovery of the abnormal condition. That’s where these technologies can support the operator, so he can understand issues and take appropriate action to avoid a potential incident.”
Ellen Fussell Policastro is a freelance writer in Raleigh, NC. Her email is

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